Sunday, 6 March 2011

Cricket World Cup 2011:secret of Kevin O’Brien's success for Ireland? 'Stump Test'

Stocky and red-headed, Ger O’Brien is so clearly drawn from the family gene-pool that if Ireland sent him out to bat against India on Sunday, no one would notice the difference.
O’Brien arrives at the Railway Union clubhouse clutching a pile of old photographs. The most poignant one shows his two younger brothers Kevin and Niall, aged seven and nine, as they watch Ian Botham walk out of the pavilion gate at Clontarf cricket club.
Ger still remembers how awestruck Kevin was at this moment, as he stood waiting to meet his idol. But you could hardly say that it represented a turning point in his childhood. The youngest O’Brien – who monstered England last Wednesday with one of the great World Cup innings – was already spending every day of his summer holidays at the Railway Union cricket ground in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Sandymount.
“We would be out of the house at nine,” says Ger, “and straight into a session of ‘Stump Test’ [a game they evolved with a tennis ball and a cricket stump]. The only break would be to dash home for lunch, because the ground is 500 yards from our house. There were six kids in the family, so we used to play three-a-side – at least until the arguments started.”
Cricket remains an anomaly within Irish sport, even if a second win against India on Sunday would continue its emergence from the shadows. There are only around 20,000 registered players, as compared to 150,000 for rugby. Its Gaelic name – Iomain Gallda, or “foreign hurling” – reveals its status as an interloper. And yet, the people who do follow the sport really follow it, with great intensity and devotion.
The O’Briens are perhaps the leading Irish cricket dynasty. But there are plenty of others: cricket-crazed families who spent the Seventies and Eighties throwing the kids into the back of the car, driving them to the local club, then turfing them out to run wild while the adults hit the pitch or the clubhouse bar. These were the days before Breathalyzers, after
For the purposes of Niall, Kevin and their three brothers, it helped that Sandymount is such a hot spot of the game. You can find four leading clubs within a couple of square miles, because it used to be a 19th-century garrison town with a high proportion of English gentry. And there are also English connections at the Bray Cricket Club, half an hour south of Dublin, where Ed Joyce and his eight siblings learned to play.
“Cricket was an absolute obsession in our family,” says Jemma Joyce, one of Ed’s four sisters. “I used to joke that I could come home and say ‘I’m pregnant,’ and my parents would reply ‘Did you hear that the fifths beat Clontarf by 127 runs?’
“It was just something that my dad took an interest in. We didn’t know anyone with any awareness of the game outside the club. When the boys got too good for Bray, they moved to Merrion CC, in the city. And on the journey into Dublin, on the DART train, they had to disguise their bats, because cricket was seen as snobby or ‘posho’. There were a couple of uncomfortable incidents when people rumbled them.”
This experience is familiar to Ger O’Brien, who remembers how “at school we certainly didn’t advertise the fact that we were into cricket, because most people thought it was all cucumber sandwiches and cream teas”.
It is true that the O’Briens grew up in a sought-after location. Sandymount counts as part of the D4 postcode, Dublin’s answer to Chelsea. But the family house was – and still is – a modest red-brick semi with a 30-foot back garden, and they are far from being gentry themselves.
Father Brendan (better known as “Ginger”) was a tax inspector, whose primary goal in life was to play as much sport as possible. Apart from his 52 appearances in the Ireland cricket team, he represented Leinster at hockey (as did all six of his children) and played semi-professional football for Shelbourne FC, once even travelling to the Stadium of Light for a European Cup tie against Sporting Lisbon.
Cricket, though, was always king. “One day in the late 1950s, my father went down the lane to Railway Union,” says Ger now. “You could say he never came back.” The family’s devotion to the sport matched that of the Joyces, to the point where the only daughter, Ciara, spent several years as the first-team scorer.
When Malcolm Gladwell writes of the 10,000 hours required to achieve true expertise in any field, he could have had the O’Briens in mind. While the four elder siblings all found respectable jobs in accountancy or real estate, the younger two have made a living from their favourite hobby.
Niall, always seen as the man most likely, won his first county contract at the age of 22. Meanwhile Kevin – who turned 27 on Friday – has spent the last 14 months as one of Ireland’s half-dozen full-time professionals. Even so, he still lodges with his parents.
Kevin’s financial independence may soon be guaranteed, if he picks up the Indian Premier League contract that many are predicting. The Indian media have already gone wild with excitement over his jet-powered innings, which cut fully 16 balls off Viv Richards’ record for the fastest World Cup hundred.
Back in Ireland, the sport is looking to benefit from this sudden surge in visibility, which found Brian O’Driscoll brandishing a bat and ball during a photo opportunity last week. More schools are taking up the game, such as Marian College. Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, says he wants to extend participation to 50,000 players by 2015.
Kevin O’Brien will make a terrific figurehead. His withering power and aggression have long been renowned at Railway Union. Judging by the 102-metre six he struck off James Anderson on Wednesday, it is hardly surprising that the club have erected a 30-foot fence between the cricket pitch and bowling green to prevent an unwary pensioner from being brained.
Now, though, the secret is out in the open. If Kevin can produce any more displays like the one that unseated England, he will be well on the way to becoming a sporting celebrity. All those games of “Stump Test” have proved to be time well spent.

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